By Maxcel Fokwen
It is a sunny Wednesday in Mutengene, a business hub in the Tiko sub division, Fako division of the South West region. A host of youngsters and women, some with children strapped on their backs are hustling to retail items to travelers. It is their daily routine to earn a living.
Among the women eking a living through this means is 42-year-old, Emelda Njong, a native of the North West region. She looks a happy and resilient woman battling to see her children survive.
But at the mention of land-related problems, Njong slips into gloom, narrating how a land dispute in Munyenge, Muyuka subdivision “destroyed” her life.
Njong talked of her husband having lost his life seven years ago, battling over a piece of land they bought from people who claimed to be indigenes of the area. Today, she can’t set foot on the land which she recalled having laboured for 10 years with her husband to purchase at the cost of 2.5 million FCFA.
At the time of purchase, Njong said the area was still forested but became highly sought for as people flooded Munyenge from across Cameroon to till its rich volcanic soils. Unable to get justice through chiefs and other established institutions, Njong said she and her four kids have handed everything over to God.
Just like Njong, the Maptues, a family of seven, have resorted to selling food at the Kumba Commercial Avenue. This, according to the family head, Maptue Nonkeu Ferdinand, who hails from the West region, was not their original plan.
Dispute over land in Boa Bakundu, Meme division, Maptue said, is what has ruined the future he planned for his family. As we exchanged, tears dropped from Mr Maptue’s eyes, owing to what he said, is losing three hectares of cocoa plantation to a group of indigenes who chased him and family away. The indigenes, he told us, claimed the land belongs to their forefathers.
With an aching heart, the Maptues say they have tried in vain to negotiate with surviving family members of the person who sold them the land 20 years ago.
Beyond such painful experiences linked to land problems, many have lost their lives while others have ended up in prison. One of such incidents is the October 25, 2015, beheading of Priscilia Tamba, 27, on a disputed piece of land in Mabonji, a locality on the outskirts of Kumba.
Tamba, a native of the Bamumbo clan in Lebialem division, was beheaded and her head thrown on the road. The land was said to be disputed by a Member of Parliament. Narratives later emerged that, a third party to whom the land had been leased for 10 years, reportedly went behind and processed documents to own the plot.
On Thursday April 24, 2014, a magistrate was accused of using a pistol to threaten workers of the Cocoa and Coffee Seedlings Project, CCSP, in Kang Borombi-Kumba over a disputed piece of land.
The magistrate was among scores of persons who had bought land from natives in an area the Institute of Agricultural Research, IRAD, had reportedly ceded to the community. Till date, land disputes between natives and settlers are still alive here.
The bigger picture threatening social cohesion, peace
These isolated incidents are a microcosm of a bigger picture of land- related problems threatening social cohesion in Meme and Fako divisions.
These areas with their rich soils and a teeming urban and rural cosmopolitan population are increasingly having land problems that threaten peace among settlers, indigenes and neighbouring villages.
Njie Peter, notable of Bokova village in Fako division recounted that, the movement of people into the division dates back to colonial days. While admitting that the influx has boosted development, Njie linked the development to the hospitality of indigenes of Fako division. Decades down the road, the local said, there are problems today that need a redress through a review of the country’s decades-old land law which can’t address current realities.
Villages in Fako and Meme have huge expanse of fertile land. Before now, colonial masters used them for farming purposes. This is the case of hundreds of hectares of land left behind by the Elders and Files company in parts of Muyuka subdivision.
In Meme division, such land left behind by Calbury and Fry during the colonial days has been and still continues to be exploited principally for cocoa, rubber, palm plantation and other food crops. This is the pull factor that is putting pressure on land.
It is a mixed of settlers and natives jostling over such land either to raise cocoa plantations, build houses or farm vegetables and food crops. Ekeke Muka, an indigene of Bafia village in Muyuka subdivision, counting over 10,000 inhabitants, said native Bakweri families in the locality can be counted with the fingers of the hand.
“I cannot deny the importance of settlers in the development of Fako division. But we must know that, times have changed and if our land laws are not reviewed, there are villages here that might not have parcels of land for future generations… People just get up and sell land anyhow. So, when you hear people complaining especially those of this generation, it is because they feel settlers are threatening their survival,” the notable said
‘We feel cheated’
Ekeke, who is among the new generation of youth clamouring for a review of Cameroon’s obsolete land law, said sometimes, “we feel cheated. So, when you see tension in certain zones, it is normal. But I think, it will be a shame for us to allow this pattern to continue, if not sooner or later, we will become squatters in our own villages”.
Despite issuing the warning, Ekeke says he enjoys the beauty of several cosmopolitan communities along the Muyuka-Munyenge axis. To him, “it shows the indigenes are welcoming. In these villages you find thousands of people from Lebialem, West and North West regions alongside other areas”. Affirming to be in the know of the land law, Ekeke says based on narrations from his grandfather and those of his generation, they know all land in these villages belong to the indigenes.
“Even if we sell to settlers, there should be some control. So, if there are possibilities of educating us to arrest the many conflicts we keep recording, it will do Cameroon more good,” Ekeke said.
Over in Konye and Mbonge subdivisions, Robert Nagunda and Itoe Joseph, both indigenes, decry what they say is the indiscriminate sale of forested land to settlers.
Nagunda disclosed that, people in rural communities across his native Meme don’t really bother much on land laws but believe every land in the community is theirs.
“When a development project comes to villages, most people believe that is when they can cede land to the government through the intervention of the administration,” he said, adding that community land is on the decline as some indigenous families continue to sell land to settlers indiscriminately.
Women as biggest victims
In Bafia-Muyuka, an expanse of hundreds of hectares found in a zone known as Mile 11, is credited to a former Divisional Officer. It is an area wherein hundreds of women farm food crops to feed their families.
According Njweng Josephine, a single parent, “we had been farming there for over 15 years. Around 2005, we just saw people planting oranges all over the place. When we asked, it was said the DO had bought over the land”.
Decades down the road, Njweng said, the administrator to whom the land was credited is of late but most of the women who owned and cultivated crops on the land had been bullied to leave. New faces, she said, have emerged, renting the land while some natives are also still laying claim to the same piece of land.
Over in Kombone Mission village in Mbonge subdivision, there is longstanding dispute between natives and settlers over a large expanse of land in an area known as Mission.
Part of the land is said to have been leased to settlers and part sold for farming and other purposes since the 1960s by the traditional ruler of the area.
Two successive chiefs and some natives are said to have, for decades, been arguing that the traditional ruler who ruled in the 60s was not supposed to give out the land.
Hundreds of women, mostly widows who were farming on the said land, have been forced out. According to Nju Kingsley, a son of one of the widows, over 300 persons mostly women were thrown out of the land by natives. Nju said, the land was carved out into plots and those farming on it asked to either buy, pay annual rents or quit.
Owing to the insecurity associated with the Anglophone crisis, most of those who wanted to fight back, Nju said, have packed out, hoping for things to improve before they continue to lay claim of ownership. He said, this is especially so for those who bought the land in the 60s.
To note that, with most of the land in the village transformed into cocoa plantations, demand for land mostly by women to farm food crops remains very high.
Traditional rulers open up on situation
According to the Secretary General of the Meme Chiefs Conference, Chief Nufuru Ivans, who is also traditional ruler of Nake village in Mbonge subdivision, disputes between natives and non-natives over land are replete in the division.
“Look at the Bakundu Forest Reserve, the Mbonge Forest Reserve which has been occupied by settlers and some indigenes are struggling to see how they can get back their land for their future descendants. It happens in all the villages and tribes in Meme. You cannot visit any without hearing of such a problem,” Chief Nufuru said.
He disclosed that: “Recently, two chiefs sold village land. Now the indigenes are chasing the persons who have bought the land. Why should chiefs do that alone?”
In the days of old, Chief Nufuru said, “our parents were very hospitable to settlers, which is why in most cases, strangers were not asked to pay for the land. So, our forefathers thought they will know how to handle the situation. At times, settlers would give just a bottle of tobacco and the chief would offer them land to be exploiting. At times without any documents out of goodwill while others paid and had their documents”.
Creating future problems
Chief Nufuru opined that, selling land incessantly is creating future problems. He averred that: “May be some are not aware of the future problems they are creating by incessantly selling village land. Some villages are well organised such that the chief cannot sell land alone without consulting notables and kingmakers. Even if an investor is coming with money, a Chief does not receive it alone. That is how it should be. So, when we see some chiefs playing with land and money, it is very pathetic”.
He affirmed that, in most of the 96 villages that make up Mbonge and the 36 in Konye subdivision, such disputes are common.
Development projects hyping tension
While disputes between settlers and indigenes over land are perennial, other enhancers of such are development projects. Sometimes, a project with political, economic and social spinoffs see neighbouring villages fighting. In such cases, people risk losing their investments.
In Meme division, the creation of the Higher Technical Teachers Training College, HTTTC, in 2014 saw hundreds of settlers trapped as indigenous communities battled over land to lay hold on the school.
Locals said it was first a Kumba and Mukonje land problem. Later on, neighouring communities such as Mambanda and Malende also entered the fray, claiming ownership.
On February 13, 2015, the former Divisional Officer of Kumba III, Gilbert Gubai Baldena, signed a decision annulling what was then seen as an end to the land problem which had sent hundreds of settlers protesting at the esplanade of the Kumba Nfon’s Palace. This was based on a fresh claim from Malende Chiefdom over the same land.
As the events took this twist, Mukonje chiefdom further laid claim over Malende, insisting, it was a quarter under it. Late Chief Dr Gabriel Ebanja of Mukonje is quoted in media reports as having affirmed such while Chief Peter Esambi Ngoh of Malende, also now of blessed memory, had fired back, saying his Chiefdom was gazetted and recognised decades ago.
On July 7, 2014, the wife of a magistrate, Nnoko Mbo, is said to have been at odds with a 25 million FCFA project to fence the Kumba District Hospital. She had demanded 10 metres of land to create a pathway to her house. The issue gave administrators and the hospital administration hard times.
Settlers bear brunt of fight
Arrests and counter arrests were reported between these villages in 2018. There was also an attack on the century-old Mukonje palace with the national flag set ablaze.
As the fight went on, hundreds of people, mostly settlers, were being summoned to gendarmerie brigades and the offices of Divisional Officers to justify their ownership of the said land.
A local cited vicinities such as Mahole, Yaounde Quarter, Dschang Quarter as being the catchments of discord. While this dragged on, locals said the late Mukonje Traditional Council Chairman, Alexander Otto Abange, hired caterpillars and created streets in uninhabited areas. This, some locals said, further saw people flooding to purchase plots.
A native of the West region, Njankeu Louis Paul, who says he has lived at Three Corners Fiango Kumba for over four decades, remarked that: “Till date, the problem has not been solved. Most of the fight is because of the development that HTTTC Kumba was expected to bring. While the area has been abandoned, people here are still living in fear”.
Njankeu disclosed being in the know of “ a couple who died of stress following repeated arrest and intimidation to quit land they had molded blocks and started building on in 2015”.
Press reports quote counsel for the Bafaw in Kumba, Barrister Awutah Philip Atubah, as declaring at a press conference in Kumba on April 16, 2018 that he had put an injunction on the sale of land in the disputed area.
“It is only at the level of the Ministry of Territorial Administration, MINAT. A Commission to be headed by the Director of Territorial Organisation will visit the field before a decision is made on that boundary issue. So, once a nullity, always a nullity. I have signed a circular to the effect that nobody should buy land in that area until the boundary dispute is settled,” Awutah had stated.
This surfaced as those who were still buying land in the disputed area were confused on the traditional ruler who was to sign their document. Till date, the matter is still to be resolved.
Administrative reading of situation
Simon Sombe, a Senior Civil Administrative Officer, who once served in Muyuka and Mbonge subdivisions opined that: “Problems related to land disputes between settlers and natives; I can put it in a simple way. If you call a Cameroonian a settler, it is a problem already. The language becomes a problem because a Cameroonian can be a settler in any place. Normally, we are having the nationality of this nation and we have the right to establish ourselves anywhere we deem necessary with the understanding of the host communities”.
Greed & manipulation
In a September 23, 2021 publication, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Buea, Dorothy Limunga Njeuma, slammed administrators, some traditional rulers and non-natives for engaging in dirty games.
She cited “recent march by chiefs of some villages in Tiko and Buea to Governor of the South West region, supported by some of their subjects and greedy non-natives, to agitate for land surrender by CDC”.
Njeuma linked the situation to the “irregular creation of chiefdoms and designation of fake chiefs in Fako (2020 and 2021), all with the aim of grabbing more land”.
In her outing, the Fako elite raised an alarm on the: “Allocation of 25 hectares of CDC land near Misselele to DDR in 2021; area fenced for DDR less than 5 hectares; the rest has been given/sold to administration, chiefs and others. Creation of fake new layout (Wonjia New Layout) in fuel plantation above Parliamentarian Flats in Buea”. In the September publication, Njeuma lamented that the “irregular allocations of land around Likoko Upper Farms in Buea in 2021” is an “inherent risk”.
To Sombe, the tension is as a result of jealousy and mockery from both natives and non-natives. The administrator submitted that: “So there is a lack of balance in handling the relationship between natives and non-natives in that, the non-natives always mock at the natives as lazy people and the natives always claim that, they are working on their land”.
Putting the current land law into perspective, the administrator argued that, “in the actual sense of the legal framework, there is no authorisation to sell land when there is no land certificate. All transactions which are done between individuals on land without land certificates are supposed to be considered illegal”.
Current law & land ownership
According to Sombe, any land owned and developed “before August 5, 1974” those who lay claim to it, “have the right because anybody who happened to have been established there before the 5th of August 1974, he /she has the right as well as the natives to own such land”.
He said after this, “all other land are state land of second category, meaning that lands of second category are supposed to be given through concessions”.
The former administrator of Muyuka and Mbonge subdivisions, holds the opinion that even with the current law, chiefs and natives are not supposed to sell land without the approval of the administration.
“So, there is already a restriction but the problem is the implementation of the restriction. If the law was well implemented, people will not have had access to land of second category without the consent of the administration and this would have brought money to the state,” he noted.
Traditional rulers, administrator proffer solutions
For Chief Ndive Woka Ngale Daniel, of Bobende village, Limbe II subdivision, Fako division, having a traditional council made up of natives and non-natives is one of the ways out of such land squabbles.
According to Chief Woka: “It is legitimate for us to be in control of our community land…I have the responsibility to protect our ancestral land from intruders. We are resolving the issue amicably with those concerned, we are not in any court or gendarmerie station. We are using negotiation”.
For Chief Nufuru, solving land problems requires that “we have to sit in our conclaves to see how we can address this issue because you cannot live without settlers. We have to work a way out so that we are not victimised and the settlers too will stay comfortably with us”.
While calling for a review of the land law, the traditional ruler said, “for any land law to have meaning in this era, it must respect the customary land right. So they must work with traditional rulers. For any law to be realistic, chiefs must be consulted. If it is not done that way, they whole thing will be a failure”.
House of Chiefs should handle land matters
Chief Nufuru argued that land matters should be removed from administrators and given to the Presidents of the House of Chiefs in the North West and South West regions.
“I will recommend that, the President of the House of Chiefs should handle land matters. Some administrators are good, some are bad when it comes to land matters, but to reduce problems, let the President of the House of Chiefs be given the power to handle these matters”.
For Simon Sombe, to ease the tension among natives and non-natives over land, there is need for mutual respect. He stated that settlers need to respect indigenes because it is their hospitality that gave them access to exploit their land. Natives too, the administrator noted, should respect the rights of settlers in their communities.
Factoring these recommendations to ensure peaceful co-existence among natives and non-natives and reduce the pressure on land, experts argue, can only be achieved through a review of Cameroon’s nearly half a century old land law.